Savannah Sass

Fondly will we remember our “Fragolina.” Always attentive to the needs of others with a desire both to protect them and to encourage them to live their lives to the fullest, Savannah, coined our “little strawberry” partly for her playful, red hair and, more so, for the fun-loving sweetness of her heart, brought joy to students, directors, and staff alike. “I’m a very social person,” she explained, discussing not only the delight which clicking so readily with her field-school fellows brought her but the unity of her private and public personality. Whether regarding her goofy T-shirts, her plethora of dad-jokes and puns, or her embrace of her “nerdy” interests, Savannah cannot water herself down or hide: “That’s me; I can’t be anything else.” Just as this energetic spirit gives herself to the world as she is, so too does she take others as they are, listening intently to others’ stories, remembering their needs and idiosyncrasies, and, particularly in the case of her lively extended family, paying attention to what matters to them. This depth of attention and understanding leads Savannah to act as peacekeeper among her peers, making sure that everyone’s needs are met, to stand up for her “shy friends” and “get them out of their shell,” and even to pick out highly individualized souvenirs for her family members. As she described photographing herself in front of the Vatican with a scarf passed down by her great-grandmother to send to her grandmother, knowing that that would mean more to her than anything else, it became clear that the thoughtful friendship which Savannah provided to her new friends on site dwells at the very core of her character.

The twenty-one-year-old’s socially-oriented paradigm is hardly a surprise considering her academic interests. Entering her senior year at Michigan State University, Savannah has dedicated herself to her major in anthropology and her minor in bioethics and humanities as well as her minor in peace and justice. The latter minor came as a surprise to the student originally more interested in the scientific dimensions of forensic anthropology; however, after taking classes that alerted her to the research’s potential in shaping the world for the better, Savannah began to work from this paradigm in her medical anthropology studies—particularly looking at “health disparities among different groups…the issues of universal healthcare, universal rights versus cultural relativism…[and] balancing…how you make sure everyone is getting their needs met…without stepping on anyone’s toes or cultural beliefs.” She believes that “there are certainly ways that we can help people in the healthcare system that we’re not doing,” and even in the realm of the dead in human identifications, Savannah believes that this theoretical work can remedy the racially-fraught pre-conceptions regarding ancestry and its biological traces as well as the socially constructed dimensions of race itself. By mixing her experience in forensic anthropology with her research into social justice, Savannah hopes to perpetuate culturally relative and socially beneficial ideas. Last year, she brought this humanistic approach to life in a medical anthropology course by reviewing research on health disparities for women of color in Detroit—assessing and presenting on the effects that the experience of everyday racism has on the bodies of black women living there. While, next year, she plans to focus on bioarchaeology and the study of human remains alongside Professor Todd Fenton’s graduate students, the social implications within her field remain prevalent in her mind: “If you can change something, even if your power is just to bring the light to a problem, you should do it,” the strong-willed woman told me with characteristic determination: “Even small things will help.”

These directions of study stem from a personal history focused on kindness to others as the eldest child who has always had a nurturing eye over and closeness with her younger sister and, in turn, from a mother who has reinforced the importance of treating others with respect. “My mom has such a good heart,” Savannah said of the woman who works in a kindergarten classroom and in whom the student sees herself: “We’re just very loud, very funny, very caring…we’ll stay hours after school to make sure someone gets home safe. She just really inspires me to be a really good person.” Despite the differing values of her father, Savannah also sees herself in his work ethic to provide for her and her sister as well as in his fiery strength, similar to that which backs her ethics and passions. As time continues, she seeks not only to better herself but to expand the perception of the people whom she loves such as her father—especially as her life-path becomes increasingly realized and her movement farther from home seems all the more possible.

Religion likewise has molded Savannah’s ethics and values: “I think that God wants us to love everyone, and everything else can fall in where it falls…we’re supposed to be good people”; however, ethics requires peace and love to be backed by vigor, and the young visionary acknowledges her fire and outspokenness when face-to-face with injustice or when dealing with others in the honest and direct manner which she prefers. Ultimately, she believes that “people should have respect for one another” as human beings, beginning their interactions with this as a base without expecting respect based on position or power and only denying respect if given a reason to do so. For Savannah, the safe expression of and respect for others’ humanity is of the utmost importance, and she would like to see a shift away from the disparity in whose voices are able to be heard and given their due; thus, despite the problems it sometimes brings, Savannah openly stands up for what she believes to be right and vocalizes her thoughts.

Simultaneously, while Savannah is “unapologetically [her]self” in her directness and the myriad of questions that she is not afraid to ask others, she makes sure that her “bigger goal” remains in the forefront of her mind and actions. Even though gaining experience to bolster her applications to graduate schools brought her across the sea to the IMPERO Project, the field school in turn “reminded [her] that this is for a purpose…this is another step of what [she’s] doing to try to get to where [she] want[s] to go” and filled her with the spirit to “hit the ground running” upon returning home. In light of doubts regarding her future, her participation in the project, “test[ing] her more as a person” than necessarily employing her major-specific skills, brought her to challenge herself to do whatever she was unsure of and made her realize that she is capable of more than she could ever imagine. “It was nice to see myself picking up a pickaxe,” she mused, “taking out that first tree stump…Whenever I was [on site], I tried to give it my all…I wanted to see how much I could push myself.”

Her perseverance, ambition, and vision led this young scholar from the suburbs surrounding Detroit to graduating sixth in her class in high school bathed in success, but her characteristic determination remained continuous throughout her time in college as she realized that her work did not finish with her achievements and that she had to keep her momentum to succeed. Thus, she “pull[s] all-nighters at least once a week” to do homework to “get to where [she] want[s] to go”—on top of taking on extra work to save up to travel while laboring as an RA. Despite the struggle, she sees before her her future graduate work, her PhD, and her fulfillment of the shoes of her professor, Professor Todd Fenton, by hopefully becoming a board-certified forensic anthropologist and “consulting on criminal cases, doing research, [and] travelling”: “[The hard work is] going for something good,” she explained, “it’s going for what I want to do.”

At the same time, Savannah understands the importance of being kind to oneself and of having a positive support system. A member of band for eight years of her life, of girl scouts until her senior year of high school, of a previous field school directed by Professor Fenton in London, and of a deeply interconnected breakdancing community, Savannah is “not necessarily a stranger to…groups” like the IMPERO Project and the social and personal development that they bring. Breakdancing in particular has provided her with both a space of comfort and of challenge. Undertaking the responsibility of vice-president of the club this past year with an awareness of the work that being president of the club this upcoming year will bring, participation and practice demands much from the young student; however, the breakdancing community offers a haven for the outcasts, for those who do not know how they fit in: “It’s inclusive to…different cultural backgrounds…body types…[and] ways of doing things.” Through a promotion of self-expression as well as community, where “everyone’s really…caring,” looking out for each other at parties, going on adventures, bringing family recipes to potluck dinners, and co-existing in an academic and personal network that provides a variety of aid with no shame attached, the club “helps [students] to break out of [their] shell…it only enriches life.” Thus, while Savannah uses this space to learn socially, surrounded by the encouragement of others, viewing it individually only through how she “surprise[s] [herself] with what [she] can do,” the club recognizes the importance of self-care and promotes flexibility, allowing members to miss practices and return with no ill-feeling.

Individuals within Savannah’s life likewise promote this attitude of self-care which she, in turn, passes along to her residents: “[My boyfriend] has become such a big support system for me,” she explained, and even her anthropology professors understand that “you don’t exist in a vacuum; you are a very complex person made up of a bunch of different parts.” “That’s the flexibility that I think we need to have more [of] in the school setting,” she continued, and thus the events that she hosts for her honors-student residents focus on self-care and balance between life and academia: She reminds them to “take a breath…[school is] important, but it’s not the only thing that’s important.” In this way, the young student has begun to embody a greater sense of flexibility and the ability to have multiple plans. In breakdancing, she taught herself moves from a sitting position so that, if she falls, she can recover, fearing not the mistake but instead thinking: “how can I get up from this position…and turn it into something that can go somewhere else?”—developing a greater ability to change course so that “no matter what life throws at [her]…[she is able to] spin it to keep going.” Even in the academic realm, this attitude has allowed her to embrace major shifts in direction, moving from her original desire to be a homicide detective to—after a lab course and one of Professor Fenton’s classes—forensic anthropology, embodying her mantra that, “[when] one door closes, a window opens.” Always defying expectations, the little girl who once “tip-toe[d] around the soccer field,” leaving sports to learn “ballet, tap, and jazz through a Christian dance group” for a significant period of time, has come a long way from the social and performative anxieties that sometimes still haunt her dreams; dance has become a release from the mental, entrenching her in the physical strain of the present away from the past or future and promoting her comfort with others.

Savannah has found her experience with the IMPERO Project to have had a similar effect: In the soil with the “Cannicci squad,” surrounded by others who believed in her as she pushed herself and with her brain easing into the rhythm as the mental stress of academia faded under the sound of the pickaxe, Savannah’s confidence has likewise grown. Over the course of the first week, she became comfortable entering the field without make-up or fear, and she began to feel less afraid of not having total control over a situation. She came to know the importance of “learning to…strategically guess…and work [her] way through problems,” to be open to new information with every unexpected context and find come to the light, building slowly, like puzzle-pieces, into a larger picture. In the end, Savannah has learned to embrace the journey and look towards her goals, moving from feeling overwhelmed with new information to being able to perfectly demonstrate and explain the concept of a cut and seeing herself as aiding the project’s research goals. “You have an objective, you have a goal, you have to work together for it,” Savannah explained, recognizing the integral nature of social interactions to teamwork and life itself and seeing this interconnected framework reflected in our mission: “It’s for the community, it’s for the bigger project…understanding more about…Roman life in the past…this area geographically and the history and the heritage associated with it.” With her sights set on challenging the way that others think, forging truth and justice in the world, and being kind to others, Savannah will carry the lessons that she learned under the Tuscan sun on her journey to build a better future.

Text by: Elisabeth Woldeyohannes

Photo by: Emma Ramacciotti